US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian FM Lavrov meet in Geneva in a high-stakes bid to defuse tensions, with the West fearing that Moscow will invade Ukraine despite warnings of severe reprisals.
The top diplomats of Russia and the United States have met in Switzerland to discuss soaring tensions over Ukraine after a flurry of meetings between officials on both sides in the last week produced no breakthroughs.
Friday's talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov come just 11 days after their deputies met in Geneva and agreed to preserve dialogue amid Russia's build-up of tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's border.
Unlike the January 10 session, which lasted for nearly eight hours, Blinken and Lavrov are expected to have a concise exchange as they determine whether diplomacy remains possible.
They meet at the lakeside luxury Hotel President Wilson, named for the US leader whose decisions included intervening against the Bolshevik revolution.
"These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won't be done quickly. I don't expect we'll solve them in Geneva," Blinken said in Geneva.
"But we can advance our mutual understanding", Blinken said, and if Russia de-escalates on the ground, "that can turn us away from this crisis in the weeks ahead".
Unity in tatters?
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday laid out its planned agenda for the meeting: texts of two proposals by Moscow for new treaties with both the United States and NATO on security guarantees.
The State Department, meanwhile, put out three statements – two on Russian “disinformation,” including specifically on Ukraine, and another entitled “Taking Action to Expose and Disrupt Russia’s Destabilisation Campaign in Ukraine.”
Blinken, repeatedly calling out what he called Russian “disinformation” aimed at destabilising Ukraine, said on Thursday the diplomatic efforts this week meant he could represent a shared view of Western nations to Russia on Friday and press Moscow to step back.
“That unity gives us strength – a strength I might add that Russia does not and cannot match,” Blinken said.
But that unity appeared to be undermined by comments by Biden, who said on Wednesday that the West’s response may not be unified if Russia only makes a “minor incursion” into Ukraine.
The comments forced administration officials to issue clarifications, but they raised doubts among US allies that Washington was willing to give Russian President Vladimir Putin some leeway to avert a full-scale invasion.
Russia, which already fuels a deadly uprising in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014, has demanded guarantees that NATO never accept the former Soviet republic or expand otherwise in Moscow's old sphere.
The US and its European partners say they are willing to consider certain less-dramatic gestures but that the Russian demands are out of the question and that Putin knows they are nonstarters.